Religion

Shuls: If no one needs them, let them slip away

I arrived at Kutz, where I will remain until the middle of August, from Limmud Colorado on Monday evening. To follow up on my post last week, I was pretty much right. Demographically, it was not as old as what I experienced at Limmud Philly and not as young as Limmud NY. There was this whole lovely cohort of young families as well, mostly crunchy-Orthodox from Boulder. Indeed, as I had guessed, there was a great spirit of cooperation and pluralism endemic to the Colorado Jewish community.

I attended one panel discussion in particular that hilighted this quality. The discussion was called, “What really happened at Mt. Sinai?” The three Rabbis on the panel were the three Rabbis of Boulder; Josh Rose (Reform)Marc Soloway (Conservative) and Gavriel Goldfeder (Modern Orthodox). I was delighted to see that they were all clearly very close friends. They study together and share meals together. The discussion was great. Although each announced fervently at the beginning that they would not toe their movement’s line, they kind of did. But more fascinating than the discussion, was the glimpse into a small Jewish community where everyone seems to go to everyone else’s programs.
There was also a panel that featured Professor Ari Kelman (studies twenty- and thirty-something Jews), Josh Fein (co-founded Denver traditional egalitarian Minyan Na’aleh), and Naomi Soetendorp (co-founded “post-philanthropic” London minyan Wandering Jews). The panel was called “DIY Jewish community,” and promised to feature a discussion by these folks of how Jews are creating these sorts of independent prayer communities. Also in the room, to see the discussion, were a number of Denver and Boulder rabbis. Though one rabbi expressly stated he was there because he likes the feeling at indy minyans and merely wants to see if there are ways he can bring that feeling to his shul, two others took a rather different attitude.
These two, one more vehemently than the other, were stone-cold baffled by why Jews that go to Minyan Na’aleh weren’t going to their established, institutional Denver shuls. They essentially asked what they could do to bring the Na’aleh folks “back” to shul. The panel unanimously said, of course, “If we’re not there, but we’re getting what we need at our minyanim, what are you concerned about? Why define success as getting more Jews to come to your shul than any other?”
Josh, as it turns out, has a kid. Aside from helping to organize Na’aleh, he belongs to a coulple different Denver shuls. One is were his kid goes to Sunday school and another one has a Tot Shabat that he and his wife like. The panel begged the question, “Why do we have to choose one? Why not daven at an indy minyan on Friday nights, go to one shul on Saturday morning, and send our kids to another for school?” Naomi suggested a sort of Jewish community Oyster Card.
Naomi also made an interesting point about her group, Wandering Jews, which she called at one point an “existential minyan.” By this she meant that they have often explicitly given thought to the fact of their group’s existence. The name refers to the fact that the minyan has never been hosted in the same house or flat twice–it wanders. And Naomi said that they don’t try intensely hard to organize the potluck dinner that follows or to make sure there’s a host for next month. “If people need it, they will take care of it, hosting it and bringing food for the potlock. I’m not going to get worked up about the existence of Wandering Jews. If no one needs it, let it slip away,” she said. And she said the same goes for shuls.
A final aside: Everyone on the panel was a child of a Rabbi. Hm.

14 thoughts on “Shuls: If no one needs them, let them slip away

  1. “Why do we have to choose one? Why not daven at an indy minyan on Friday nights, go to one shul on Saturday morning, and send our kids to another for school?”
    Because that may work for you now, but WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ONCE YOU HAVE KIDS???
    Oh wait.

  2. And Naomi said that they don’t try intensely hard to organize the potluck dinner that follows or to make sure there’s a host for next month. “If people need it, they will take care of it, hosting it and bringing food for the potlock. I’m not going to get worked up about the existence of Wandering Jews. If no one needs it, let it slip away,” she said. And she said the same goes for shuls.
    Wow, even I wouldn’t go that far. I don’t think anything should “slip away”. If it’s time for a shul or minyan to cease operations, then it should cease, but this should be done deliberately and consciously, and the shul or minyan deserves a nice funeral.

  3. “Why do we have to choose one? Why not daven at an indy minyan on Friday nights, go to one shul on Saturday morning, and send our kids to another for school?”
    The only concern I have about this idea (which in general I think is right on) is that I think it’s important to make sure that we support all the institutions from which we benefit. So it’s fine, I think, to get your davening one place and your education another, but we should be sure to put in time and effort and money and help to keep the school going. If we don’t, and we don’t have any other contact with that shul, we shouldn’t expect the schooling to be there or be surprised if it goes under.

  4. miri, agreed absolutely. I was totally surprised, though, when Josh said that he and his wife actually pay for the multiple congregations that they take part in. But, in any case, I think this concern is addressed (albeit slightly flippantly) by Naomi’s idea of an Oyster Card.
    BZ, word on the funeral. Interestingly, that is one issue that Naomi felt was crucial to Wander Jews becoming a true community. She felt that they hadn’t addressed death yet and that addressing death would make them somehow more solid.

  5. David, I think you missed BZ’s point. He wasn’t saying a minyan wasn’t real until they held a funeral or dealt with death. Rather, he was saying that when a minyan ceases to exist, it shouldn’t just slip away but there should be a “funeral” of sorts for the minyan (ie, closure).

  6. Doesn’t Boulder have a “community” shul membership where you can pay one set of dues and attend any program at any shul in town? We visited one of the Boulder Renewal congregations several years ago while in town for a wedding, and the rabbis were telling us about something like this. The way they described it, it sounded like it wasn’t perfect, but was one of the most genuine attempts at real institutional pluralism I’d ever heard of.

  7. To add to the last post, I wanted to add that there are two Renewal congregations also in Boulder, served by three rabbis (two are a married team). I think they also more or less get along with the others, play nicely.
    Anyway, “the three Boulder rabbis” is not quite correct.

  8. Jeff, thanks for correcting on the Boulder Rabbis. Didn’t know about the Renewal folks.
    themicah, if they do, it didn’t come up in the course of this panel.
    feygele and BZ, I followed the point, and then used it as a jumping-off point to introduce another interesting thought Naomi had during the panel.

  9. Still, it’s nice to have the community and stability of belonging to one shul. My family moved shuls for a better educational program a few years ago and things just haven’t been the same since.

  10. Hello David, an interesting take on an interesting session. I think I agree with the comment about needing a “funeral” or ending rite. Wherever possible we should end with a bang, not a whimper. But WJ seems far from that point at the moment. If any one wants to find out more about WJ feel free to check the (nascent) website http://www.wanderingews.co.uk or contact me directly. And please, if you are in London and looking to connect and people to spend Shabbes with please get in touch, all bests, Naomi

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